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Why Billion-Dollar, 100-Year-Old Companies DIE

Peter Diamandis   |   February 19, 2013    1:35 PM ET

In this blog, I am going to talk about why large companies typically can't innovate... What goes wrong? Why do they ultimately DIE?

The year 2012 marks the death of Kodak, a $26-billion, century-old "cornerstone" company of the U.S. R.I.P.

Did you know that Kodak actually invented the digital camera that ultimately put it out of business? Kodak had the patents and a head start, but ignored all that. Why? That's what this blog is about.

To put an exclamation mark at the end of the Kodak story: In this same year, Instagram, another company in the image business, was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion... The catch is, Instagram had only 13 employees at the time.

This is the difference between a "linear" company and an "exponential" one.

One of the biggest challenges that large companies have today is creating an environment that allows for innovation. Everywhere the rate of change is so fast that large U.S. companies are in constant danger of disruption. Not from competition in China or India, no. They're in danger of being made obsolete from two guys/gals in a garage in Silicon Valley, or anyone, anywhere, empowered by exponential technology, willing to risk it all, driven by their passion.

Whether it's steamships disrupted by the railroads, or railroads disrupted by the airlines, it's typically the large entrenched incumbents that are displaced by innovators. It happens over and over and over again... Why?

Here are my four primary reasons:

  1. True disruption means threatening your existing product line and your past investments. Breakthrough products disrupt current lines of businesses. My rule of thumb is: "You are ether disrupting yourself, or someone else is." Most companies and boards are not willing to change, give up near-term profits (public companies are driven by quarterly perspectives) in return for long-term gain. These companies that are linear, myopic and inertia-driven will ultimately follow the path of Kodak.

  2. Companies have too many experts who block innovation. True innovation really comes from perpendicular thinking. While this isn't always true, I've met too many experts who are fantastic at telling me why a breakthrough can't possibly occur. Think of it this way: experts whose field is disrupted are no longer experts, are they? They're now "has-beens." Plus, as we'll see below, a true breakthrough requires massive risk... risk to reputation, something that an expert has spent decades building and protecting. This is why, to some degree, peer-review science really leads to incrementalism versus breakthroughs. This is why the National Institutes of Health, according to Michael Milken, funds more researchers over the age of 70 than under the age of 30.

  3. Technology is changing exponentially -- disruption is coming from outside the field -- and large companies are unable to keep up. Technologies that used to be in a completely different field are now disrupting complete new arenas. Who would ever have thought that biology would be a disruptive force in the energy/fuel business? Or in the insurance business, with rapid genome sequencing being able to predict what disease a person is likely to have? Or that synthetic biology would become the new programming language for the 21st century? Companies that depend only on their internal experts cannot possibly evolve fast enough during these times of explosive innovation. They are the large, lumbering, doomed dinosaurs surrounded by thousands of rapidly evolving small furry mammals.

  4. The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea. And experimenting with crazy ideas requires a high degree of tolerance for risk-taking. Large companies and government agencies have a lot to protect and therefore are not willing to take big risks. A large company taking a risk can threaten its stock price. A government agency taking a risk can threaten congressional investigation. Remember what happened with the solar-panel company Solyndra? It manufactured thin-film solar cells. The Department of Energy, through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, helped fund the company. The company filed for bankruptcy in August 2011, and then the witch hunts began... Who was to blame? How could the government back a losing idea? Clearly, the only option for a government bureaucrat who sees this is NEVER TO TAKE A RISK AGAIN...

The Department of Energy made an investment that failed, and it got raked over the coals for that failed investment. This is ridiculous. The fact of the matter is, the government should be making a lot of risky investments, the majority of which are likely to fail. But if every time the government makes an investment that fails, it gets negative front-page news and pulled into congressional investigations, pretty soon the government is no longer making any risky investments and progress become incrementalized.

So it really is difficult for large organizations or government to make disruptive change. For that reason, the how of creating approaches that limit risk but allow for upside is very important.

Can large organizations be innovative? Can they take risks?

The answer is YES... And the subject of my next blog.

This is a remarkable story. More to come!

In my next blog I'm going to share with you how Lajos Reich, Chief Technology Officer for GE Healthcare in Hungary drove record innovation despite the limitations of working in a large company.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

Prof. Hawking Goes Weightless -- The True Story

Peter Diamandis   |   February 15, 2013    1:20 PM ET

In this blog, I want to share with you how I overcame the risks involved in taking the world-famous wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking on a zero-gravity flight.

Doing anything bold and significant in life requires taking risks. And one of the biggest risks I took this past decade was flying the world-famous physicist into zero-gravity.


This blog is the first time I'm speaking about the behind-the-scenes story of those risks and the countermeasures we took. What might have seemed easy from the outside world, was not in any fashion in its execution.

Back in 2007, I had the opportunity to meet Professor Stephen Hawking through the X PRIZE Foundation. In my first conversation with him I learned that he was passionate about flying into space someday. I told him that while I couldn't get him into orbit, I could offer him the chance to fly aboard our specially modified Boeing 727 and experience weightlessness. After all, the idea of flying the world's "greatest expert in gravity" into zero-gravity was too good to be true. He said yes immediately -- or for as long as it took him to type out the letters on his machine.

In 2007, I had been running Zero-G for almost 14 years. Co-founded in 1993 with astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and NASA scientist Ray Cronise, it had been a very, very long startup. It had taken us nearly 11 years to get permission from the FAA to offer the general public the experience of weightlessness (our first flight was in September 2004).

Meeting with my team, we brainstormed making the flight into a fundraiser for ALS (Hawking's motor neuron disease is related to ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Hawking quickly agreed and we sent out a press release the very next day saying, "Zero G to fly Stephen Hawking into weightlessness to raise funds for ALS." I had expected nothing but positive reaction. But what happened next shocked me. I received two phone calls. One came from our airline partner saying, "You're crazy. You're going to be flying this guy who has been in a wheelchair for 40 years and there's a good chance he might get injured." The other came from a friend at the FAA who said, "You know the rules under which you are operating require that anyone flying must be certified 'able-bodied' and I can't imagine anyone here would view Prof Hawking as able-bodied." On top of that, I had a number of people in the commercial space world approach me saying that this was a bad idea, that a major accident could set back everything we had been working toward for decades.

I was in a quandary. I had started Zero-G specifically to broaden the public for access to weightlessness. Commercializing space was all about giving the experience to a much broader audience, especially amazing people like Prof. Hawking. To be told "no" was all the more reason to figure out how to make it happen. The challenge was getting there without aggravating the FAA lawyers and also making sure the flight was indeed safe for the world's most famous physicist.

It took me six months, many phone calls with lawyers, my friends at the FAA, our aircraft partner and a number of physicians... but we finally got there.

The first thing we did was ask the question, "Who determines if someone is able-bodied?" The second question we asked is how we could maximize Hawking's chances of safety.

The answer to the first question, in our opinion, was that the only folks qualified to judge Hawking's physical health status were his own personal physicians, and perhaps experts from the space-medicine world. So after purchasing liability and malpractice insurance policies for a few (not disclosed here) physicians, we were able to submit three letters to the FAA stating without question, that Hawking was "able-bodied" for the Zero-G flight.

Regarding the second question about safety, we decided to turn the forward half of the G-ForceOne (our special weightless 727 aircraft) into a mobile emergency room able to deal with any slew of medical conditions that might arise. We also decided to conduct a practice flight with a stand-in for Dr. Hawking on whom we would practice a series of zero-g healthcare maneuvers... everything from CPR to electroshock conversion.

With this plan in place and a final blessing from all concerned parties I set out to make this happen. Here's what happened next:

  • We sold about 20 tickets at $15,000 each from donors and raised about $150,000 for ALS. At the same time, we covered our costs for the flight and press conference. (The flight was also sponsored by Spaceport Florida and by Sharper Image.)

  • We flew a practice run the day before the actual flight. All of the paying donors got to fly on this flight as well, and float around and enjoy the experience (the next day, they'd be concentrating on observing Hawking during the flight).

  • As a stand-in for Hawking during these "medical test runs," we found a 15-year old high-school boy who had a passion for physics and who was roughly the same height and weight as Hawking. He was put in a wheelchair, told not not to move a muscle, and we practiced what to do if Hawking had a heart attack and tachycardia or suffered a broken bone. These were things at risk: Hawking is very frail.

  • Onboard we had four physicians and two nurses monitoring the 15-year-old's heart rate, blood pressure, Po2 and breathing at the same time that they ran through all of their emergency medical procedures in zero g.

But the day of the flight was extraordinary.

The entire event took place at the NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the 15,000-foot-long Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) -- one of the longest runways in the world. That morning in front of hundreds of reporters, we held a press conference announcing our intention to conduct "a least a single 30-second parabola" (normally on a consumer zero-g flight, we do about 15 in total). We chose to do a pre-flight press conference because, frankly, we had no idea what shape Hawking would be in at the end of the day.

What stood out most in my mind that morning, was his answer to the press conference question: "Professor Hawking, why are you doing this flight?"

This was Hawking's answer: "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster... I think the human race doesn't have a future if it doesn't go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space."

We boarded Hawking on his wheelchair using a scissor lift, then carried him off his wheelchair into one of the seats for takeoff. Once we reached cruising altitude of 24,000 feet, we carried him to the front of the airplane and lay him on top of pre-positioned padding and pillows. At Hawking's feet was my partner and two-time astronaut Byron Lichtenberg. I was at Hawking's head. As we entered the first parabolic arc and Hawking floated into the air, the entire airplane erupted into cheers. Thirty people in the back of the plane were hooping and hollering. Hawking was free of his wheelchair and the bounds of gravity for the first time in over 40 years. While his entire body is paralyzed, he does have use of a few facial muscles, and the smile that expressed his emotion was extraordinary. He looked like a kid floating in zero-g. After the first parabola, when we returned to normal gravity, I looked over to the lead physicians monitoring his vitals. Apparently everything was rock solid and I was given the thumbs-up to proceed.

While my original intention was to do at least one parabola, at most, perhaps three, Hawking wanted to keep going. At the end we finished up doing eight parabolas, with Hawking still raring to go.

Hawking was so filled with energy that after we landed he even did a post-flight press conference. The result was front-page press worldwide.


Again, doing anything significantly big and bold in life requires taking risks. This was a big one for me personally and for the company. One question people ask me is how do you know when to take a big risk? My answer is twofold:

1. If the risk is fully aligned with your purpose and mission, then it's worth considering. In this case, flying people like Hawking is exactly why we had created Zero G.

2. Second, you need to do everything you can to retire as much of the risk as reasonable, such that you can honestly say that you covered all of the situations you were most concerned about.

I get demoralized by organizations that start off with a mission and pull back when they find it's risky. I view risk-aversion as crippling America in many ways. Most people (and politicians) forget that 500 years ago, thousands of people risked (and gave) their lives to cross the Atlantic and settle America. And then, again, 200 years ago they did the same to settle the West.

For me, Stephen Hawking's flight also allowed us to pioneer the ability to take handicapped people into weightlessness and a year later we had the opportunity to take a group of six wheelchair-bound teenagers into zero gravity. These were kids who had never walked a day in their lives. Their experiencing the ability to fly like Superman around the airplane without their wheelchairs was remarkable.

Ultimately when you are doing something new, you have to ask yourself is it worth the risk to you? Is it something that you're willing to bet everything on? If you're doing something big and bold that's sometimes what it takes.

Zero-G today has flown over 12,000 people into zero gravity. The company operates flights in cities across the U.S. The ticket price is $5,000 -- reasonable when you think of the 11 years of start-up time! If you're interested in flying, you can find more on the company's website: It is a truly remarkable experience and worth every penny!

In my next blog I'm going to teach you one of the most important fundraising lessons I ever learned. It's worked for me for over 30 years. It's something you need to know, too.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

US Startups Are Struggling to Find and Retain Talent: It's Time to Change That

XPRIZE   |   February 15, 2013   12:54 PM ET

2013-02-15-image001.jpgBy Greg Becker
Greg Becker is president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank, which opened its doors to the technology industry 30 years ago.

The majority of the entrepreneurs and startup CEOs we work with share a common dilemma: they struggle to find, attract and retain the engineering, scientific and technical talent they need to grow their businesses. This is a problem widely understood and attributed to large technology companies, but it is equally problematic, and perhaps even more acute for the companies that are just starting out, stretching every dollar, and competing with the tech giants for high-skilled workers.

The results of our annual Startup Outlook survey this year highlight this situation directly. While nine in ten startup executives said they were hiring, an equal number said it is challenging - or extremely challenging - to find workers with the skills they need.

Since technology startups have historically created 11 percent of all private sector jobs and 21 percent of US GDP, it's definitely in the best interest of the country to make sure we have a vibrant workforce, and that we increase the size of our tech-educated talent pool.

Our clients don't report that immigration is their issue - they don't think of it that way. Technology, healthcare and cleantech companies need skilled engineers, mathematicians and scientists to build on their ideas and their fast-growing companies. One of the ways to support these companies is through changes to immigration policy, but education is another important piece of the puzzle.

We need to create a tech-savvy, highly-skilled American workforce. The more people with skills that are in demand, the better for all of us. Congress is well aware of the issues facing the technology industry, so the time to act is now.


Approximately half of all the startups in our 2013 survey had at least one immigrant on their founding team. Our future economic success depends on our ability to attract - and employ - talent from around the world. Fixing this problem won't just help high-skilled tech workers either. Two in three of the startups in the healthcare, cleantech, or hardware sectors said in our survey they either currently manufacture or plan to start manufacturing in the next 18 months. More than eight in ten said they'll do some or all of that manufacturing in the US, and at least a quarter of those newly-created US manufacturing jobs will go to people with high school educations and/or on the job training. But all of that will only happen if those startups make it.

Considering the ripple effect that successful startups have on our economy, it is just good business sense to make it easier for them to succeed. Having spent a couple days on Capitol Hill last week, I am encouraged that members of Congress know what needs to be done, and are willing to make the necessary compromises to get a fix over the finish line.

Read more results from Silicon Valley Bank's Startup Outlook survey at

Visit X PRIZE at, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Asteroid Impacts Over Russia -- Another Larger Rock Passing Very Close to Earth

Peter Diamandis   |   February 15, 2013   12:22 PM ET

As you may know, I'm the co-founder and co-chairman of an asteroid company called Planetary Resources that is backed by a group of eight billionaires to implement the bold mission of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids. Given my personal interest in asteroids, today is an epic day. If you're interested in more info on this, I urge you to join our mission at Planetary by signing up for the regular updates on our website.

In the meantime, I want to fill you in on two breaking stories.

First: At about 09:30 local time, a large meteor exploded in the skies over Chelyabinsk, a city in Russia just east of the Ural mountains, and about 1,500 kilometers east of Moscow. The fireball was incredibly bright, rivaling the Sun! There was a pretty big sonic boom from the fireball, which set off car alarms and shattered windows. Reports are coming in that up to 1,000 individuals have been injured (mostly by shattered glass blown out by the shock wave).

Second: This comes exactly at the same time that another asteroid -- 2012-DA14, a 150-foot (45 meter) asteroid -- is whizzing by the Earth a hair's breath from the surface. It's missing us by only 14,000 miles, well within the 22,300-mile orbit of the geostationary satellites that orbit around the Earth's equator. I wanted to put this in perspective for you with some of the chilling and fascinating facts:

  1. This asteroid 2012-DA14 is approximately the same size as the asteroid that hit the Earth in Russia in Siberia (the "Tunguska Event") on June 30, 1908.
  2. That impact was equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima nuclear bombs and knocked down 80 million trees down over an area covering 2,150 square kilometers (830 sq mi).
  3. Had it hit near a population center it would have killed millions of people.

Today, there are approximately 610,000 asteroids that are actively tracked in our solar system. This number represents less than 1 percent of the more than 60 million asteroids that orbit the Sun. Of these asteroids, about 1.5 million are larger than 1 kilometer in size and are what might be described as "extinction-level/dinosaur-killing asteroids."

Today scientists are closely tracking 434 asteroids that are large enough and come close enough to the Earth to be of potential future concern, and while none of these pose any significant risk today, increased surveillance is required.

While the primary business of Planetary Resources is to ultimately prospect and mine the most select of these for fuels and precious metals, the company views that this economically driven activities will assist humanity in the arena of planetary protection in two critical ways.

First, the Arkyd-100 Space Telescopes that the company is currently designing and building will assist in the detection and characterization of these small, potentially hazardous, yet undetected asteroids.

Second, as the company ultimately develops the capability and infrastructure for intercepting and mining asteroids, Planetary Resources expects to be able to help in the (slight) redirection of these rocks to keep the Earth safe.

Mining asteroids will ultimately benefit humanity on and off the Earth in a multitude of ways. First, by providing us access to the fuels to accelerate human exploration of space. Second, by expanding humanity's economic access to platinum group metals important for our rapidly growing high-technology industries; and third, by giving us the infrastructure to routinely and swiftly interact with and redirect asteroids, like 2012 DA14, which could someday pose a threat to Earth.

On the production floor of Planetary Resources Inc, we also now have full-scale mechanical prototypes of the Arkyd-100 Series, which is the first line in its family of deep-space prospecting spacecraft. According to our President & Chief Engineer, Chris Lewicki, "The Arkyd-100 Series will be the most advanced spacecraft per kilogram that has ever been built. The system will be highly capable and cost-effective, which will allow for a constellation of them to be launched. That efficiency will not only fast-track our asteroid prospecting effort, but will also lend a hand in scientific discovery and planetary defense."

Yes, Africa Can Be Part of the Online Job Economy

XPRIZE   |   February 14, 2013    6:06 PM ET

2013-02-14-Joseph_Ajao.jpgBy Joseph Ajao
Joseph Ajao is a Singularity University alum who co-founded Oacsoft Technologies-a Nigerian company that develops low-cost software for SMEs, Schools and Government agencies.

In November 2012, I spoke to a security guard in Lagos, Nigeria about his current job. He works at a popular hotel. He is a 43 , he uses the Nokia 1100 phone and barely has access to the internet. He got his current job after working as security guard for 11 years in a popular Nigerian bank with over 5,000 employees. Due to the recent crash of the Nigerian Stock Market, he was sacked at the bank before he found a job at the hotel. I wondered endlessly about how he found out about his current job since he doesn't even have a CV.


He received a phone call from his friend who heard about both the hotel and bank job a from another friend . Now, he is under-employed and may never be able to find a new job. Even if he finds a new job, can he negotiate properly? He is currently paid 70% less than he was paid when he worked at the bank.

Like the security guard, there are over  85 million economically-active people and 35million unemployed people in Nigeria alone. Of this economically active population, there is a high number of informal workers. By informal workers, I will mean people like Mechanics, Drivers, Office Helpers, Plumbers, Messengers, Office Helpers, Cooks, Security Guards, House helpers etc.

Recently, I also had a chat with Godwin Ehigiamusoe , the CEO of LAPO Microfinance, a microfinance company that has giving loans to more than 700,000 SMEs in Nigeria. He complained about his ugly experience while trying to hire a plumber to do some plumbing works in his home. He spent more than a week talking to his friends  about recommending a reliable plumber. The plumber he found did a bad job, he had to spend another week trying to figure out where to find another plumber that is reliable. After 2 weeks of searching, he found none. He had to make do with the poorly skilled plumber.

If you are reading this and you live in the US or another developed economy, what comes to your mind is Angie's List or other similar platforms. Well, this will not work for the security guard. Though it may work for Godwin if there is a similar platform launched in Nigeria.

The Opportunity

It's not just Godwin that has the problem of finding qualified, reliable and trustworthy informal workers. Millions of families, SMEs and companies have the same problem. It's a great business opportunity with so many problems.

Any company that attempts to solve this problem must be prepared to address these challenges. Such company will have to answer questions such as:

  1. How will the problem of trust be managed? Most people in Africa will only work with you if they trust you. People will only hire someone that can be easily tracked. Unfortunately, there is no centralized government database from which you can get data about people.
  1. How do you handle receiving a large amount of application? There is a high rate of unemployment in many developing countries, hence, if a job is posted, more people than expected will apply. A company must be able to address this problem by allowing employers to easily select those that qualify for the job posted without wasting a lot of time.
  1. Like the security guard, most informal workers will at least have a mobile phone. However, only a few of them can navigate this phones, but they are usually able to send and receive SMS. If a company will be connecting such informal workers to job opportunities, they must have this in mind.

A Singularity University company, MobiTrader, is on the verge of attacking this problem. The startup starting operations in Nigeria has a big vision of connecting 1 billion informal workers in Africa to local job opportunities in 10 years. Even the governments of most developing countries have tried organizing this informal workers especially via trade unions, but all efforts has been abortive. How do you get millions of informal workers who may not have access to the internet organized into an online job economy?

I am a data nerd and know what having an organized informal work-force would mean for economic development in Africa. If MobiTrader succeeds, then informal workers in Africa will find better job opportunities, make better employment decisions and have an improved standard of living.

Visit X PRIZE at, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Let the Boys Have Their Social Media While Women Save the World

XPRIZE   |   February 12, 2013   12:15 PM ET

Vivek.jpgBy Vivek Wadhwa
Vice President of Academics and Innovation, Singularity University.

You often hear Silicon Valley moguls say "we wanted flying cars; instead, we got 140 characters". They believe that we've run out of ideas and that innovation is dead; that mobile and social-media technologies are our last hurrah. Not surprisingly, it is these startups that they mostly fund.

It's an open secret in Silicon Valley that venture capitalists make investment decisions based on their gut feelings and instincts--what they call "pattern matching". And who matches the pattern of a successful social-media CEO? Mark Zuckerberg, of course--the young, male college dropout. That's great for the boys wanting to cut school, but it means that other groups are left out--in particular women, Hispanics, and blacks. Attend any major tech event in the Valley, and you will notice their dearth.


I have written extensively about the challenges that women in tech face: how they are commonly discouraged during childhood from becoming engineers and scientists; the struggles they face in male-dominated tech companies; and the way in which they are stereotyped and mistreated by some investors when they look for startup funding. This is despite there being virtually no difference between men and women entrepreneurs in motivation, education, and capability. Indeed, Kauffman Foundation's analysis showed that women are actually more capital-efficient than men, and Babson's Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found  that women-led high-tech startups have lower failure rates than those led by men.

But here is the good news. The pessimists who claim that innovation is dead and that mankind is doomed are dead wrong (pun intended). And the bursting of the social-media bubble has shown that they are making the wrong investment decisions. As I explained in this Forbes piece, this is the most innovative decade in human history. The future is not going to be one of dire shortages and stagnation; it is more likely to be one in which we debate how we can distribute the abundance and prosperity that we've created.

An assortment of technologies is advancing at exponential rates and converging--in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials. These advances are making it possible for small startups to solve humanity's grand challenges--including energy, education, water, food, and health.

I discussed some of these advances in my recent TEDxBayArea Ignite talk.

In these rapidly evolving fields, the young male college dropouts who excel at social-media app-building have no advantage. Those with experience and education--particularly in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--have the edge because they can work across disciplines and see the big picture.

Women are primed to lead in this new era. Girls now match boys in mathematical achievement.  In the U.S., 140 women enroll in higher education for every 100 men.  Women earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor's and master's degrees, and nearly 50 percent of all doctorates. Women's participation in business and MBA programs has grown more than five-fold since the 1970s, and the increase in the number of engineering degrees granted to women has grown almost tenfold.

It is not just the women who can lead; it is also entrepreneurs all over the world. There are few experts in these emerging fields, and the cost of developing technologies and starting companies has dropped dramatically over the past few years. Anyone, anywhere, can build the billion-dollar businesses in the new trillion-dollar industries that will emerge.

Our mission at Singularity University is to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity's grand challenges. We want to do what we can to level the playing field.  We are holding the door open for women applicants to our forthcoming graduate studies program. I encourage women--from all over the world--to apply. This 10-week program is nothing less than life-changing. You will leave our campus at the NASA Ames Research Park with a broad knowledge of the advancing technologies and build a network of like-minded people.

And one more plug: at the upcoming Women 2.0 "the next billion" conference, I will be presenting the results of our new research on women in tech. My team at Stanford and Lesa Mitchell of Kauffman Foundation surveyed 500 women entrepreneurs to learn what motivates them and why they took the leap into entrepreneurship.  This will also provide insights into a book I am writing on how to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs, to think big, and to help solve humanity's grand challenges.  It is they who are going to save the world, after all.

Visit X PRIZE at, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

A Radically New Ideas Machine: Kickstarting an X PRIZE for Everything

XPRIZE   |   February 7, 2013    1:24 PM ET

2013-02-05-Jonny_Miller.jpegBy Jonny Miller
Jonny Miller is Co-Founder at Maptia, a TechStars company building the most inspirational map in the world.

Has our great ideas machine really broken down? Peter Thiel recently quipped that innovation in America is "Somewhere between dire straits and dead...we wanted flying cars; instead, we got 140 characters."

And, he has a point. We are still relying on the out-dated intellectual property system to fuel and reward the creation of new ideas and startups. The lure of the acquisition lottery is leading smart and talented entrepreneurs to invest their time in low impact problems; while, traditional venture capital funds are avoiding the outliers or 'black swans', which often lead to revolutionary ideas.


Let us be thankful then for foundations like Peter Diamandis' X-prize that are sparking radical new ideas using a new competitive model. The X-prize foundation has already experienced remarkable success in a wide range of fields and has several more in the pipeline. This is only the beginning. For as Steven Johnson eloquently argues in his recent book Future Perfect, the world needs an 'X-prize for everything'.

Although innovation prizes have been around for centuries, they have never been used to their full potential.

When an innovation can be specified, prizes are vastly more efficient for incentivising, diffusing and promoting new ideas in comparison to the messy Western intellectual-property system. Put simply, patents grant ownership of an idea consequently restricting both the ideas' diffusion rate and the ability for others to further innovate upon it. Prizes on the other hand let innovators profit handsomely from their ideas without owning them.

If you add up all of the worldwide philanthropic prizes the total is not much greater than $375 million. This sounds like a big number yet in a global economy typically measured in trillions of dollars, it is barely a drop in the ocean. Let's apply Larry Page's moonshot thinking: imagine a pool 1000x bigger than the current philanthropic innovation prize total available. Here is one radical suggestion for what that might look like:

Lets revolutionise global incentive mechanisms for innovation by creating the world's first crowdfunded innovation prize.

Could a crowdfunding model be applied to innovation prizes in order to create a new incentive mechanism for global innovation? KickStarter has shown us the potential of crowdfunding, but there is so much more to come. Yvon Chouinard pioneered the '1% for the planet' campaign and raised well over $50m to protect land in Patagonia. He achieved this by crowdfunding money from hundreds of different companies who all committed just 1% of their sales. It was a simple, yet powerful strategy.

What if instead of a donation, these companies had pledged their 1% towards an innovation prize pool? This pool of money would follow the same model as Kickstarter - such that if the total amount was not raised or no innovations were made within the specified time period - none of the money would have to be donated. It is effectively a win/win for the company.

What if the philanthropic icons such as Richard Branson committed his Virgin Empire to backing this concept? What if he courted the media and charmed the Fortune 500 CEOs? How much could he and others collectively raise? $1bn? $10bn? Maybe even $100bn?

Imagine if we achieved the monetary target and then divided this prize pool into 50 different innovation goals/prizes. An X-prize for drugs, climate-change, you name the category. These goals/prizes could be researched and determined by globally minded thought leaders and academics, such as those working at the Singularity university.

Imagine also if the focus of these prizes centered not just on expensive/impressive prototypes, but on scalable products and process innovations. Instead of being patented and hidden under lock and key, these breakthrough innovations could be released to the commons for anyone to adopt, replicate, re-innovate and distribute.

Now, think of the serendipity explosion this new incentive mechanism would create. Past innovation prizes show that the total spending on research is many times the total prize winnings. For example in the Ansari prize, 26 teams collectively spent over $100 million in pursuit of a $10million prize.

Archimedes said 'Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world'. Innovation prizes are that lever. Who knows what would happen if the brightest minds on the planet had powerful economic incentives to work on audacious, make-a-dent-in-the-universe type projects. Peter Thiel might just get his flying car after all.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Who Can Compete With Silicon Valley?

XPRIZE   |   February 5, 2013    6:08 PM ET

2013-02-05-DeborahPerryPiscione.jpgBy Deborah Perry Piscione
Deborah Perry Piscione is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and the author of the upcoming book Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Can Learn from the Innovation Capital of the World (April 2, 2013, Palgrave Macmillan)

Can Silicon Valley's remarkable success be replicated? Is there any city, community or region that can possibly compete with its stunning record of innovation, creativity, and wealth generation? Could another place become a similar magnet for the world's most brilliant minds?

Take the case of Singularity University, a non-profit educational institution located at Moffitt Field in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Singularity's University's co-founders Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil have gathered top thinkers from many different disciplines and fields to forecast, analyze, and create the science and technology that will solve the world's biggest challenges in eight disciplines: education, energy, environment, food, global health, poverty, security and water.

In the view of these two men, entrepreneurship is the future of the world. Technologies that grow at an exponential rate will revolutionize our most basic interactions, how we work, learn, and design our lifestyles. These technologies will allow anyone - at any age, anytime, and anywhere in the world - to enter the entrepreneurial marketplace, create a personal brand or platform, and build things that not so long ago were extremely capital intensive and prohibitively expensive.

This is the global "startup revolution" sweeping the landscape of talent development and idea creation, a movement so widespread that it has the potential to redefine the foundational concept of business and work in the 21st Century.

This brings us back to our original question: Is it possible to replicate or compete with Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley stands as a prime example that this century will not be defined by the classic notion of the nation state, but rather by the regionalization of cities as the hubs of economic development. Silicon Valley is always evolving, like an active volcano that erupts every few years with creative destruction that brings forth a new formulation of ideas, technologies, and commercialization.

"We are a bubble-based economy that continues to reinvent itself," says Doug Henton, chairman and CEO of Collaborative Economics.

As countries, states, and localities content with their bankrupt budgets and face the reality of their options for increasing tax revenues, regionalization will take on greater importance. The good news is that states and localities have decreased spending to a negative 2.7 percent, the biggest drop in three decades, according to a USA TODAY report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Regardless, regions will have to learn to diversify their economies a la Silicon Valley.

Peter Diamandis believes that Silicon Valley technologies will continue a path of billion dollar valuations overnight while traditional multinational corporations, relics of the industrial age, will continue to go out of business over the next 2-10 years. Perhaps the greatest lesson for business is that it is more important for all companies with a global reach to maintain an office in Silicon Valley than Washington or New York.

At the micro level, the region is not only responsible for creating the disruptive and innovative technologies that we can't seem to live without, but also will continue to inspire innovative new business models that will be less capital intensive. What is the secret to this type of economy? You have to have the right culture of people, who are risk tolerant, constantly adapting, and don't enjoy being sedentary. It is a place where people trust one another to cross-pollinate and strengthen their idea's commercial viability. It is easy to attract the brightest of talent in Silicon Valley because of the high-value-added work that is offered here. "It is a hell of a trampoline for those serial entrepreneurs who are ingratiated into the ecosystem," says Doug Henton. If you fail at one thing, you just jump to the next idea.

This is what makes Silicon Valley so tough to compete with. It's an ecosystem with many parts that nurture one another.. Bill Miller, the former provost of Stanford, likes to call it a "habitat" because it is not just about invention but also about the people who can help commercialize an idea. Bill talks about that habitat as not just containing the seeds, but the soil as well. The first computer was created at the University of Pennsylvania and the first semiconductor was invented at Bell Labs in New Jersey, yet neither one was commercialized there. All that happened in Silicon Valley.

Technology is both heating up our world and vaporizing it. Because of the pace of exponential technologies in today's market, unless you can create and commercialize your idea overnight, you will literally be out of business by the time you go to market.

Most of the world lets Silicon Valley lead and then replicates its ideas, saturates the market, and fizzles until the next wave of innovation appears. This is why today's disruptive entrepreneurs and visionaries need to be thinking about technology 5-10 years out. It is as simple as that.

At the core of Silicon Valley's secret to its success is a culture that is open, nurturing, thrives at risk-taking and comfortable with failure. These are just a few of the characteristics that I define as Silicon Valley's ecosystem, an ecosystem that rarely asks, "Who do you work for?" but rather, "What's your passion?

In the research for my upcoming book, I was fortunate to spend time with the teachers, students and executives at Singularity University. My friend Vivek Wadhwa, who serves as Singularity U's VP of Innovation, warned me before I participated in their executive program, "Deborah, it is going to change your thinking." After a week, my response was, "It didn't just change my thinking; it changed my life."

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

How I, A Woman, Learned To Break The Rules And Do My Part To Help Better The World

XPRIZE   |   January 28, 2013    4:20 PM ET

2013-01-28-MyanmarOrphanage.jpgBy Darlene M. Damm
Darlene M. Damm has worked with Ashoka for over five years and is a founder of DIYRockets and a co-founder of Matternet, which are aeronautics and aerospace companies designed to launch new industries and benefit the world.

Why is it that so few women have changed the world on a massive scale in the same way that men have? Where are the female Henry Fords, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?

Where are the women who have not only started companies, but launched entire new industries disrupting the way the world works?

As a female entrepreneur determined to "put a dent in the universe," this is what I am observing: To bring about wide-scale change, women need to focus on breaking the rules rather than playing by the rules.

If you look at the areas where women are succeeding today, it is primarily in areas where the task is to play by the rules. Women are succeeding (and in many cases outperforming men) in primary school, secondary school and higher education. Women are excelling in the fields of medicine and law. Women are starting small businesses in the US and overseas in large numbers. And more and more women are being promoted into CEO and leadership roles at large global companies.

While this progress is beneficial to women and society, it falls short in that women are primarily achieving success within existing systems rather than pioneering new ones.

While women will stay in school to master the ideas of their books and professors, men will drop out to start a company around their own original idea.

While women are launching small businesses in the decades-old and well-understood industries of beauty, consulting and micro-finance/handicraft, men are launching start-ups in high tech fields with the most cutting edge experimental technology and new business models.

While women are working their way up the corporate ladder for decades at a time into CEO roles running other entrepreneur's companies, men are founding their own companies and growing them into global companies in a sometimes just 3-5 years.

In short, women are playing it safe looking for success in already established fields. By definition this prevents women from leading large-scale, disruptive global change.

While we don't really understand why women are approaching the world from this angle, for myself it was a question of confidence. In the past if I had an idea I wanted to pursue, I would wait for someone else who "knew what they were doing" to tell me it was good enough. If people didn't agree, I feared pushing it for jeopardizing my relationships with others.

It was not until I started working with the organization, Ashoka, the world's largest association of social entrepreneurs, that I absorbed the organization's philosophy of "giving oneself permission. "

I learned that while I should always be open to feedback, it was up to me and only me to evaluate if my idea was worthy enough and then, if I believed in it, do whatever it took to make it happen in the world.

It was a new level of responsibility, risk-taking and way of relating to others that was absolutely essential for striking out on my own into new territory.

To bring about wide-scale change, women need to understand the mechanics of how wide-scale change happens.

It was also not until I started working with Ashoka that I learned that there are methods for creating revolutionary global change. For example, if you want to improve education outcomes for a nation, you need to change how the nation's education system works rather than just one school. Ashoka Fellows are selected for their ability to bring about systemic change.

Thankfully, many women are very highly skilled in this area and are flourishing in bringing about revolutionary change as social entrepreneurs in almost every nation.

Many women are less familiar with another method of generating wide-scale change- the utilization of exponential technologies. As a participant at Singularity University in 2011, I spent 10 weeks learning about a set of technologies--those grounded in computers, artificial intelligence, energy, material science and biotechnology that follow Moore's Law--technologies that are rapidly becoming more efficient while at the same time becoming much cheaper--all at an accelerating rate.

This means that, like the cell phone, these technologies will likely be accessible to almost everyone in the world some day. They thus have a tremendous ability to solve problems and change the world at a global scale.

The future of the women's movement is in entrepreneurship rather than advocacy.

For centuries women have been improving their rights and status through advocacy--asking those in power to change laws and behaviors and treat them more fairly.

While that was important historical work and perhaps the best option at the time, I believe we are now at a new historical moment where women no longer need to advocate--they can step up as entrepreneurs, take charge and make the world as they desire.

Imagine if only 15 years ago, droves of women had stepped up to found the world's Internet and tech companies that are now running the world? Instead of having to continually advocate for lawmakers and corporate leaders to resolves issues like the wage gap or daycare, we could just change it ourselves.

But first, in order to re-make the rules, we have to be willing to take on the responsibility of breaking the rules. Given the level of opportunity that we have today, combined with our ability to bring about rapid global change through system-change and exponential technology, there is no better time to start moving than now.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Unleashing Innovation to Save Our Oceans

XPRIZE   |   January 25, 2013    1:25 PM ET

2013-01-25-Bob_Weiss.jpgBy Robert K. Weiss
Robert K. Weiss is the Vice Chairman and President of the X PRIZE Foundation.

Rapid acidification of our oceans presents a challenge well suited for utilizing the incentivized competition methodology to crowdsource the genius required to create the solutions sorely needed before it's too late.

Our beautiful Blue Planet has another problem with acid in its waters. In the 1980s, "acid rain" was contaminating lakes and rivers across the Northeast. Eventually, a joint effort across state lines helped develop new air-quality standards, smokestack scrubbers and other improvements to avert the crisis, returning the region's water systems to viability.

Scientists have begun sounding the alarm bell that we have a much bigger and more complicated issue developing with water becoming more acidic, this time in our oceans. As reported last Fall in a Los Angeles Times article ("A sea change to ocean chemistry," Oct. 7, 2012), many of the world's top ocean scientists gathered in Monterey, CA recently to discuss the growing evidence of ocean acidification. The news is not good.

In the last 150 years or so - since the beginning of the industrial revolution - our oceans have become about 30% more acidic. And what this means to life in the oceans is potentially disastrous: corals and mollusks have more difficulty making shells, plankton at the base of the food chain become less viable, and whole ecosystems are potentially threatened. But as the scientists in Monterey noted, we are only just beginning to understand these impacts; and worse still, we're only beginning to understand the extent of acidification itself.


To respond, we'll need new approaches that can leap across jurisdictions and scientific disciplines, bringing together experts and resources from many institutions and organizations to think how best to solve what could become a huge problem for us all. It is clear that change is already occurring. The 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide deposited in our oceans since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are making seawater more acidic, already affecting life in cold-water areas such the Pacific Northwest. Without change, one researcher says, by century's end our oceans will be "hot, sour and breathless."

The problem is big and complex. Our knowledge of the issues is imperfect. We know that increased carbon dioxide is a driving cause, because as CO2 is absorbed by water, it forms carbonic acid. (Think of how sweet a flat soda is: the CO2 that makes it bubble also provides the acid that counteracts the sweetness. CO2 in your soda makes it taste right but in the oceans it increases acidity.)

So, what needs to be done? It starts with substantially increasing our knowledge. 70% of the globe is covered by oceans. Dealing with acidified oceans across the entire globe is considerably more complicated than dealing with acid rain in one region of one country on one continent. Thankfully, we have some time before the full brunt of this massive problem hits. Focused research now can lead to better research in the future that will lead to comprehensive solutions to this massive challenge.

As we have done successfully in diverse areas from space flight to oil cleanup, an incentivized competition could drive privately funded research and result in innovative, orthogonal solutions.

Reducing carbon dioxide deposition is the long-term key to stabilizing the pH of the oceans. But how we get there is a very big question. It will require novel solutions from many areas of research. The leveraged incentivized competition methodology can unlock exponential growth in technologies, stimulating solutions to complicated, seemingly intractable problems. It is the X PRIZE Foundation's stock in trade.

The X PRIZE Foundation is mobilizing to attack ocean acidification. With the generous support of Wendy Schmidt, we will be launching a global competition for the development of effective and affordable pH sensors to profoundly improve our knowledge of ocean chemistry and the understanding of the global effects of ocean acidification.

This significant improvement in technology can help scientists begin to answer critical questions about our oceans: Where are the impacts of acidification the greatest? Which ecosystems are most at risk? How does the CO2 driving acidification circulate around the world's oceans? What capacity do the oceans have to deal with this change?

If the ocean dies, the planet dies. Practical answers to this problem can be found with a well designed and curated competition that will unleash the innovators. Let's make it happen. We can't afford not to.

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For Women, Things Really Haven't Changed -- Even in Medical School

XPRIZE   |   January 24, 2013    2:47 PM ET

2013-01-24-BrookeSachs.jpgBy Brooke Sachs
Brooke Sachs (@MlleBrooklyn) is an early-career social entrepreneur, third-year Medical student, and FutureMed alumni at Singularity University.

For years, I insisted that the world had changed. That violence against women was decreasing. That I'd never felt it; never had it affect my life. I wasn't shouting from the roof-tops that I was stronger than the other women around. I just thought we were winning battles. Soon, the war would be over.

A science degree under my belt and a year into Medicine, I still believed. My male colleagues treated me as an equal. There was no apparent Boys Club in the common room, nor did the male doctors treat the female students as less knowledgeable or hard working than our male peers. We were all equals. A year on, I'm not so sure.

Women's rights have made it back to front-page news with the recent brutal rape of an Indian student and the shooting of a young Pakistani activist on her way to school. These confronting incidents internationally can remove the sense of urgency at home, where Western ideals might protect us from harm. The developed world, however, is not immune to incidents of violence against women. A teen in Ohio was recently sexually assaulted by footballers from a neighboring town. In 2012, Australia was horrified by the disappearance of Jill Meagher on her way home from a work function. She vanished from a busy street of a safe area, to be found later raped and murdered. Those are the stories that make the headlines.

It seems that we've yet to discover the sort of national discourse that immunizes us against gender-based discrimination. Or maybe this virus has mutated. What you hear about less often - and what is an issue for many women - are the subtle cases of discrimination. Men are told they're a "pussy" when they show emotion while women are told to "grow a pair" if they want to get by in business. The increasing proportion of female university graduates is not translating to more women in leadership positions. Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, makes the news just as frequently for her outfits and haircuts as she does for political decisions.

When I told my mentor, a strong female in the tech industry, that I'd never really encountered gender-based discrimination, her words were ominous. "Just wait," she said, "it'll come." It wasn't a warning that preparation could see me outrun danger. It was a statement. I've been reminded of her words numerous times since. In Medicine, there are tales of inappropriate demands on women in order to reach their desired training positions. Nowhere is it more obvious than surgical programs.

So how do we change our profession before we get to the top? How do we say we won't sacrifice our morals for our chosen specialty? We won't put up with being told to "man up," let alone requests for low-cut tops or "accidental" brushings of our bodies.

Some say feminism is dead. That it's outdated and no longer the answer. But are we getting complacent? Has feminism fallen foul to the false logic plaguing the vaccination debate? Where, just like inoculations, we did so well for so long that we've forgotten what a pandemic really feels like.  Have we decided that near-enough is good enough when it comes to women's rights? Just like herd-immunity, you either have equality or you don't. And if you don't, you risk the subtle remarks turning into something more insidious. You risk an outbreak, where the most vulnerable in our community are the most susceptible. Except instead of risking someone in hospital with measles, where we have isolation rooms and appropriate treatments on hand, you risk a woman tolerating sexual harassment to avoid repercussions created by our social constructs. Instead of stopping a woman getting into tertiary education, you stop her at the glass ceiling. It's claimed that her years out of work rearing children put her behind her male colleagues. That she's gotten soft. That working part-time will never cut it.

At the same time, men are also forced to conform to out-dated stereotypes of being a bread-winner who never cries in public and is derided by his mates for saying "I love you" when on the phone to his other half. As long as we have social constructs around women being the weaker sex, we unfairly demand that men stand up to be the protectors. A new Australian campaign, Soften the Fck Up, acts as a call to action for men to challenge the "bloke" stereotype. A recent TED Book, The Demise of Guys, looks into wider social issues for males given the changing dynamic for the opposite sex. We need to create a safe space for men to voice their concerns and we all need to be open to others' opinions.

We need to re-brand feminism. It's not just about equal rights for women. It's about equal rights - but flexible roles - for everyone. It's time to listen rather than shout louder about the glass ceiling. Because this isn't war. This is our lives.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Doc, Am I Fit To Fly Into Space?

XPRIZE   |   January 22, 2013    3:54 PM ET

2013-01-22-JulielynnWong.jpgBy Julielynn Wong
Julielynn Wong, MD, is an alumnus of Singularity University. She edited a textbook entitled "Surgery in Space" and trained in space medicine at NASA Johnson Space Center.

Doctors may soon face requests to provide medical clearance for commercial space travelers and these decisions could impact the growth of the private space industry, according to a new analysis.

This article, published in the Christmas 2012 issue of the British Medical Journal, reviewed industry reports and medical studies to help guide physicians who may have to answer questions and fill out fitness to fly certificates for the growing ranks of aspiring space travelers.

"Commercial investment is bringing space tourism closer to reality," said study lead author Dr. S. Marlene Grenon, a cardiovascular surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. "Suborbital flight opportunities are currently being planned by companies such as Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, and XCOR."

A July 2012 Federal Aviation Administration report estimates the market demand for reusable suborbital vehicles could grow to a total of 13,134 seats over a decade and bring in over $1.6 billion.

"With more opportunities for space tourism, an increasing number of less healthy individuals can be expected to fly," Grenon said, adding that the exact nature of the effects of spaceflight on medical conditions are yet to be determined.

"Dr. Grenon and colleagues have emphasized the difficulties in commenting upon the fitness -- or lack thereof -- of potential candidates for spaceflight," said Dr. Andrew W. Kirkpatrick, a military trauma surgeon and professor of critical care medicine at the University of Calgary and Foothills Medical Center in Alberta.

Passengers should be informed of the lack of advanced medical and surgical care capabilities in current commercial spaceflight platforms, said Kirkpatrick, who was not involved with this study.

Just how far can the medical envelope be pushed? Consider that Stephen W. Hawking -- the ventilator-dependent, wheelchair-bound British physicist with longstanding motor neuron disease -- is slated to fly onboard a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight.

Space medicine experts say that suborbital flights are less risky than orbital missions because suborbital passengers experience about one to five minutes of microgravity.

"Most people with well controlled medical conditions are capable of withstanding the acceleration forces involved with the launch and landing of commercial spaceflight vehicles," Grenon said.

The FAA has not made any specific statements on medical requirements for commercial space passengers, the BMJ authors noted. Instead, the FAA has opted to leave the medical screening process up to the commercial space vehicle operators. "Experience in aviation medicine has shown that over-regulation could inhibit development of the sector," Grenon said, adding that a delicate balance -- between prioritizing passenger safety and avoiding overly strict medical criteria that could decrease the market -- is needed to make the commercial spaceflight industry viable.

"If a potential space traveler asks his or her physician for a medical letter of clearance for space travel, the physician will share responsibility for determination of suitability with the commercial space operator," she said.

While the International Space Station is currently the only orbiting space tourist destination, other extended stay commercial spaceflight opportunities could exist in the future, the authors wrote.

"It may be possible to fly to an orbiting Bigelow Aerospace hotel or laboratory in the future," Grenon said.  "Mining companies may send employees to the Moon or near-Earth asteroids to mine planetary resources."

Once a passenger has disembarked from their space vehicle, there are much greater uncertainties that complicate medical decision making, Kirkpatrick said.

"Adverse physiological changes that increase susceptibility to critical injury or illness may be established within hours of leaving Earth's gravity," he said.  "Chronic medical conditions may be exacerbated and unexpected acute emergencies may be more serious than on Earth."

As extended stay commercial spaceflight opportunities develop, doctors will likely adjust the medical standards governing who can live and work in space.  Disabled individuals could adapt and perform as well as their able-bodied counterparts in space, said one former physician-astronaut.

"People with disabilities will be able to fly in space just fine," said Dr. Dan T. Barry, a retired NASA astronaut and physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, who was not involved with this study.  "Many mobility impairments will be gone in the space environment."

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

China, Regulation and Securing the Operating System of Life

XPRIZE   |   January 15, 2013    2:55 PM ET

2013-01-15-marcgoodman.pngBy Marc Goodman
By Marc Goodman, Chair for Policy, Law and Ethics at Singularity University and Founder of the Future Crimes Institute.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States recently approved the sale of Complete Genomics, based in Mountain View, California to China-based BGI (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute).  Some decried the committee's investigation as the overarching meddling of government in business affairs while others hailed the committee's efforts as an important measure necessary to protect national security.  In fact, both sides were right.


Attempts to regulate or restrict the export of American biotechnology are likely to backfire and hurt American competitiveness.  We've seen this pattern before.  Efforts by the US government to ban the export of encryption technologies during the 1990's did little to prevent their use around the world. In fact, just the opposite occurred, it spawned the development of foreign firms in the encryption space and the launch of competing products.  In 2001, President George W. Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research, delaying important and potentially life-saving research into illnesses ranging from cancer to Parkinson's disease.  The result: the US fell behind in this area and some of our best scientists went overseas to continue their research unfettered by American political affairs.  Regulating dynamic, fast-changing technologies is difficult. 

This said, newly emerging technologies ranging from robotics to nanotechnology do raise significant national security concerns, as do the advances in genetics and synthetic biology.  Were we to ignore these concerns, we would do so at our own peril.  Whether or not we realize it, we are at the dawn of a new information revolution.  This time however, the information stored and processed won't be with 1′s and 0′s on silicon chips, but rather encoded in the operating system of life itself: DNA.  Genetic engineering and synthetic biology empowers people to alter the molecular mechanisms of cells and viruses, agents that can replicate and spread, potentially beyond human control.  This shouldn't just be a national security concern.  It should be a global security concern.

Though we are in the earliest days of developing the emerging field of synthetic biology, in the coming years, it promises to have massive impact on everything from business to medicine and energy to warfare.  The Chinese government and BGI clearly understand this and are pouring tremendous resources into research and development of these biotechnologies.  That US Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, was the only member of Congress known to have publicly expressed concern about BGI's purchase of Complete Genomics is not just startling.  It is also emblematic of how far the rest of Congress is from understanding how quickly the biotech revolution will be upon us and how dramatically it will impact all facets of our world.

For America to remain competitive, the appropriate public policy response is to ban neither research nor international trade, but rather to invest heavily in both.  The United States government, through its public funding of DARPA, was responsible for the creation of the Internet and our nation reaped untold wealth as the progenitor of the information revolution.  Yet the economic gains realized from the Internet may be dwarfed by coming boom in genetics and biotechnology.  What role the United States will play in that brave new world is yet unanswered.  In the meantime, it is worth studying the progress being undertaken by other nations, including China, and by companies such as BGI, not as a means of inhibiting their scientific progress, but as a catalyst for driving our own.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Sustainable Moon Travel and the Google Lunar X PRIZE

XPRIZE   |   January 14, 2013    4:36 PM ET

2012-11-19-Nathan_Wong.jpgBy Nathan Wong
Part five of a five-part series about going back to the Moon, by Google Lunar X PRIZE technical consultant Nathan Wong.

Over the past four articles, I have written about challenges and benefits of going back to the Moon, as well as looking at what might be on the horizon in terms of robotic development, but how do we get there from where we are today? Current missions to the Moon must be sustainable in order for this advancement to continue. In fact one of the three major goals of the Google Lunar X PRIZE is to help develop pathways for sustainable exploration. I will look at sustainability from two different viewpoints: technical and financial sustainability.

Technical Sustainability

For the technical sustainability of the Google Lunar X PRIZE I will look at three different aspects. The first deals with space situational awareness or minimizing the threat of orbital debris damage while in space. NASA currently tracks over 20,000 debris items in space. These items range in size from centimeters to meters across flying around the Earth at speeds around 8 km/s (5 mi/s). This space debris comes from a variety of sources such as pieces of rockets, satellites, or other space missions. Additionally small meteorites can hit space objects and break them into more pieces creating more debris. For debris that is created closer to Earth, drag caused by the atmosphere will deorbit the debris in 10s of years, but for items farther out, such as geostationary orbit (satellites remain above the same point on Earth) debris can remain in orbit well beyond a human lifetime.


Although these 20,000 debris items may seem like a lot, it is still manageable, and although space debris numbers are growing, so are the efforts to reduce the amount of space debris and mitigate the risks. Both satellite and rocket manufacturers are more aware of the responsibility to maintain space as a natural resource that must be protected from damage. Google Lunar X PRIZE teams should also consider using sustainable practices to ensure that both Earth and Lunar orbit debris are minimized so that future missions can continue with minimal risk associated with space debris.

In addition to protecting the orbits around the Earth and the Moon, it is also important to protect the surface. The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has in place planetary protection guidelines mostly to protect from biological contamination. These guidelines are dependent on mission characteristics and the planetary body that is being visited. The Moon is a class two target on a five point scale, so the risk associated with biological contamination is fairly low compared to that of something like Mars or Europa.

A more relevant set of guidelines for the Google Lunar X PRIZE is the NASA guidelines for protection of lunar artifacts as two of the bonus prizes are awarded for visiting lunar heritage sites. These guidelines are only recommendations, not law and are written with respect to United States heritage items, but provide a good baseline to protect any heritage items on the lunar surface. The guidelines provide recommendations for both flyover and surface mobility and well as speed guidelines and how to deal with your craft at the end of the mission so as to reduce the possibility of contamination or damage to a heritage item.

Finally it is important that your technical design is sustainable. That can come in a number of different ways from making sure you have a plan for your vehicle once the mission is done, to using commercial off the shelf parts in your design. Using standard commercial pieces can potentially reduce costs, ease design iterations, and help standardize payload interfaces.

Financial Sustainability

The first X PRIZE was the Ansari X PRIZE with a prize purse of $10 million given to a single team that successfully launched a manned vehicle to space twice within one week. That prize was won on October 4, 2004 by the Scaled Composites team, and is inspiration for the Virgin Galactic vehicle and mission design. Although that prize was won more than 8 years ago now, a manned suborbital craft has not gone back to space and there are a limited amount of companies in the suborbital spaceflight business.

As stated before one of the three main goals of the Google Lunar X PRIZE is to develop pathways for sustainable exploration. One way of helping to promote this sustainability is with the prize design. Instead of having one winner as in the Ansari X PRIZE, the Google Lunar X PRIZE has a second place prize that should foster technological development even after the grand prize is won. Another aspect of the Google Lunar X PRIZE that will help promote sustainability is the relatively small prize purse with respect to the overall mission costs. For the Ansari X PRIZE development costs for SpaceShipOne came in at about $28 million. The prize purse provided recovered about a third of that cost. That fraction will be significantly lower with the Google Lunar X PRIZE with substantially larger mission costs.


Even if a team wins the grand prize ($20 million) and the maximum amount of bonus prizes ($5 million) there is still a large funding gap that must be accounted for. This funding gap forces the team to think about additional sources of funding from the Google Lunar X PRIZE mission or from future work based of the work completed earlier. Some examples of this include the NASA Innovative Lunar Data Demonstration (ILDD) program that will purchase up to $30 million for lunar data. Although this program is only open to teams from the United States, other government agencies are looking at similar programs. Teams can also sell payload space for scientists to run experiments on the lunar surface.

Although the odds are against 24 different companies providing continued lunar access beyond the Google Lunar X PRIZE, ideas, design, and personnel from these teams will continue to live on. Outside of the competition environment, there may be more room for cooperation. Teams with complementary technologies working together to get farther than they could alone. Companies could share rides to the Moon, work through the design challenges associated with a lunar mission, find new benefits from continued exploration, and continue using advances in robotics to accomplish new and exciting goals. The Google Lunar X PRIZE is hopefully just the start of continued commercial space exploration.

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This blog post is brought to you by Shell, our Exploration Prize Group sponsor.